Take Care for the Holidays

I’ve been easing myself in to the holiday season.  It all starts with emails and phone calls early in October.  Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving turn into talks about Christmas. Who will we see? Who will we miss? Where will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

Holidays matter. They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So each year we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering turkey dinners, caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. And we build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week.  You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “Well, we always go to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends locally.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer in February.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on a Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that.  They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety.  Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy.  Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow, the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in.  That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life.  My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more.

 

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Process-ing

I had been trying to get back into the swing of writing consistently, plopping down 300 words a day in front of all of you, following Anne Lamott’s suggestion to just get them on the page. Every day I was stumbling along obediently, in true teacher fashion, modeling what I hoped my students would do — dump out the story; clean it up later.

I wasn’t liking any of what I was writing, but I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually get some gold.

About that time, the group of ladies that I meet with for breakfast suggested that we begin reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I wasn’t with them when they made the decision, but I got a text with the title that the others had chosen. We’ve read many books together already: Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness among them. We often make our selection based on a hunch one of us has that a book going to be good. Without fail, each of the books has served almost as a guide to the narratives of our individual lives — just the thing we needed to hear at a particular time.

For example, when we read The Broken Way, one of us was walking her mother through her last days, another was hearing for the first time the brutal details of a horrible event in a family member’s history, and another was learning that her husband’s cancer had returned.  We were collectively broken, and Ann Voskamp helped us not run from it, but sit in it.

We read Braving the Wilderness against the backdrop of a highly divided nation and discussed how we could be open to conversations with people who don’t agree with us and how we must be brave enough to do this crucial work.

We’ve come to expect that when one of us suggests a book, we should all just jump on board because each of the books we’ve read have guided our conversations and shaped our hearts. Over and over, in the space of a morning-dark living room, we have together been changed.

So why, when I got the text about The Artist’s Way did I turn up my nose?  Well, besides being stubborn by nature, I hadn’t heard the reason for this choice.  And, to be honest, the word ‘artist’ in the title came with a whole bunch of associations that I didn’t feel connected to. Finally, my work schedule had been such that I figured, “Yeah, maybe my season with this group is done. This one probably isn’t for me.”

And so I didn’t buy the book.  I just kept tossing out three hundred words a day like magical seeds that might one day sprout into something.

Then a few weeks later, one Sunday morning at church, one of my breakfast club friends said, “Aren’t you loving this book?  I can’t believe how much I love all the writing!”

Wait. What?

“The writing?” I said.  “I’ve gotta admit, I haven’t bought the book yet, what kind of writing are you talking about?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ll love it! You have to commit to writing three pages every morning. I keep getting up in the middle of the night, and I can’t believe all the things I’m putting on the page.”

As she’s talking, I’m opening the Amazon app on my phone, searching for the title, and clicking “purchase”.

“Really? I didn’t know it involved writing. I guess I thought it was going to be about art.”

“No!  It’s about the artist inside of all of us. Oh, Kristin, you’ve got to read this book. I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.”

“Well, I just purchased it. So, I’ll start this week.”

And then the book arrived.  I opened to the introduction, because I’m one of those people who reads introductions, and I just didn’t like the tone of the author. She sounded very know-it-ally, and I just couldn’t. So I set the book on the table next to where I usually write and walked away.

For a week I didn’t write anything. Granted, we were busy at work and I didn’t have a lot of steam left when I got home, and getting up extra early in the morning seemed out of the question.

Until I found myself writing this around 2am:

Technically it’s morning. It’s the middle of the night. Up with pain and brain again. I grumbled about this book today — didn’t want to get it in the first place — dumb title.  Irrelevant. Then the self-important tone of the intro made me want my money back. But I’m not even through the first chapter and I know that Julie Cameron is right. If I write — actually write — three pages every morning, I will create an opening.  

And I started getting up every day at 5:45 — yes, 5:45 — to use a pen and a notebook to write at least three pages. And, like my friend, I’ve been amazed at what has shown up on the page. I’m not censoring, because I’m not writing for an audience. Instead, I am letting whatever is in me come out. Some days I’m writing about things long past. Other days I’m scratching out my current to-do list. I’m writing anger and anxiety and regret and sadness and hope and prayer.  I’m filling my second spiral notebook with no intention of accomplishing anything other than creating an opening.

I met with the breakfast club girls this week. Four of the five of us are writing these pages each morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).  The one who isn’t said, “So, you’re writing?”  And the rest of us practically pushed each other out of the way to share how profound the experience has been. Then, I sheepishly admitted, “I’m only on chapter two of the actual reading.”  Surely by now, I thought, two months later, everyone else would be almost finished with the book.

“Me, too!” one said.

“I’m only on chapter four,” said another.

And it dawned on me — getting through the book is not the point. This book is not about finishing, it’s about being open to the process. And that is the message of relevance this time around. Just like every other book we’ve read, this one is speaking into our individual narratives. One of us is learning how to be a widow. Another is walking into retirement in a new home in a new community. One is about to become a grandmother for the first time. Another is navigating the comings and goings of young adult children. Me? I’m discovering after thinking that my professional career was over, that I might just have another round in me.

We’re all in phases that aren’t really about arriving or finishing; they are more about being, practicing, living, and breathing through the process.

So, it’s 6:32 am, and I’m spending this morning’s time to reflect, because, writing three pages every morning isn’t so magical that I can’t take a break to put my fingers on keys. I’ve created enough space to see that I can allow myself space.  And that is some kind of gold.

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Time Trial

You knew it was coming.  You read some blah, blah, blah I wrote about working 20-30 hours a week, and you rolled your eyes and thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll last.”

You think you know me?

Ok, fine.  I’m pretty predictable.

I was a few months into my current position when my supervisor asked me if I would be interested in doing a little more training to become a mentor to other instructors — newly hired clinicians who, by design, receive scheduled coaching. Well, yeah. I’d like to do that. I mean, 1) I’ll take any training you will give me. I love to learn;  2) I love observing  other professionals. It sharpens me as much as it sharpens them. So, bam, I became a mentor.

I was getting used to that position when I was approached again: would I be interested in being an instructional pacer. I’d have to get a bit more training regarding standardized tests and analyzing student scores. I’d also have to see how our instructional practices target the specific learning needs of each of our students. In other words, I’d have to understand the why and how of instruction.  Was I in? Definitely.

I was willing to step into these positions knowing that I would be called upon to work more than the hours I initially agreed to because although I’ve struggled with my health for six years now, I have been feeling fine since I started this job. Maybe it’s the fact that I had a series of steroid injections in my S/I joint in January (about the time I hired in), and my pain has been greatly decreased. Maybe it’s the consistency of the schedule — my work day never falls outside of standard 8-5 hours. Maybe it’s the positivity of the work environment — we clap, hooray, and celebrate all day long. Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors that have made this position a good fit for this time.

Whatever it is, I have decided that I’m willing to try full-time employment for the summer.  I’ll give it a shot and see how it works. If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you realize that I’m willing to experiment a little — I’ve followed an ultra simple diet, I’ve tried multiple medications, and I’ve worked a variety of jobs.  Each of these experiments has taught me something about myself and the ways that my body and mind function best. I’ve learned that my body prefers tea over coffee, that my skin breaks out almost immediately if I eat corn (even my much-loved popcorn!), that pharmaceuticals aren’t the best option for my super sensitive body chemistry, and that I work best in positions that provide boundaries that I wouldn’t normally observe on my own.

Let me tell you a little more about that.  Instruction at Lindamood-Bell is broken into hourly segments. Most of our students come in for four hours a day.  Each hour they receive 55 minutes of instruction followed by a five-minute break. The instruction — 55 minutes of highly focused cognitive work — is tiring. Our students work hard, and so do our clinicians! Because of this, everyone stops once an hour to take a break, get a snack, go for a walk, use the bathroom, play a game, juggle, laugh, or otherwise rest from the intense work of instruction. Likewise, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, everyone stops for a fifteen-minute break. Often during these longer breaks, we celebrate student accomplishments, have a group treat like ice cream, or engage in group play like the center-wide nerf gun war we had recently. Everyone works hard; everyone takes breaks. It is required.

This is not a rhythm I fall into on my own, but I’m learning from it.

This very healthy rhythm of work and rest is further emphasized by the expectation that employees are only to work while on the clock. For the first time in decades, I punch a clock before I meet with a student, answer a question, or even reply to an email! Last weekend, while on a short vacation with my husband, I logged into my work email and quickly replied to a question.  Not long after that, my supervisor emailed me and said, “Thank you for the response, now STOP CHECKING YOUR WORK EMAIL WHILE YOU ARE ON VACATION!”  I chuckled to myself,  logged out, and walked down to the beach. This position requires that I work while I’m at work and rest when I’m not. That’s a good rhythm for me, too.

The boundaries of my work environment make it a healthy place for me to work, and so does the climate. Because most of our students have experienced multiple educational roadblocks and frustrations, it is critical that we provide a positive climate. All day long we praise, give rewards, and slap high fives. Each time a student responds to a question, he receives a “good job” or a “great try”. If she masters something that has been tricky, bells ring and the whole center applauds. Instructors get celebrated, too!  If one staff member sees another staff member do something great, he writes it down, points it out, and gives recognition.  All day long, we work hard to create a culture that celebrates individual effort and achievement. We smile, we laugh, and we cheer.

This, too, is not natural for me.  I tend to analyze, criticize, and strategize. These skills have been necessary and useful in a variety of positions I’ve held, but they don’t necessarily build a positive culture. Rather, in isolation, they support a climate of striving and perfectionism. Anyone who’s lived in such a culture knows how stressful that can be. What I’ve learned though, is that I can quickly adapt to a culture of positivity, support, and celebration. In fact, just like many students who have struggled in other learning environments, I thrive here. I am even finding that my skills of analysis, critical thinking, and strategizing are welcome, as long as they are tempered by compassion. And, I’m remembering that compassion comes naturally to me, too.

Yes; this position seems to be a good fit for me, but will I be able to sustain these good feelings while working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday?  I’m not sure, but I hope so. It seems that I’m learning at least as much as my students are.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands

Psalm 90:17

Trouble Drives the Narrative

Real life stories, just like fictional ones, consist of ups and downs, twists and turns,  successes and failures, joys and disappointments. We expect these rhythms when we read stories of fictional characters and even when we read biographies and autobiographies, but when we are living out our own life stories, sometimes we get trapped in the mistaken belief that life is only good when it is free from trouble. It’s unrealistic, to be sure; honestly, I doubt many of us would even bother to read a fictional story in which everything goes smoothly or in which the main character never faced a challenge. What would be the point?

If when Mayella Ewell accused Tom Robinson of violating her, someone had stepped up and said, “Come on now, you just want to accuse an innocent black man because it’ll make you feel better about yourself,” and Mayella had said, “Oh, you’re right. Sorry about that,” To Kill a Mockingbird would hardly have been worth reading. Harper Lee wouldn’t have had the means by which to make Atticus Finch our hero. We wouldn’t have seen him stand up to prejudice, shoot a rabid dog, or try to explain the harsh realities of life to Jem and Scout — and those are the reasons we love this story! We don’t love the trial of an innocent man, his conviction, or his death — we like the character who endures despite injustice, who doesn’t lose his head, who is able to speak truth into the situation and maintain hope. We don’t love the conflict, we love what the character does in the face of the conflict.

Without conflict a story hardly exists.

In fact, from early grades, we learn that stories have an arc — the exposition in which the writer provides context and sets the stage for the action, the rising action that introduces the conflict, the climax where the outcome of the conflict becomes evident, the falling action during which the loose ends get tied up, and the resolution that enables us to close the book and move on to the next story. The heart of every story is the conflict — the trouble drives the narrative.

The trouble, however, is not the story;  the ways in which the character faces, weathers, endures, or overcomes the trouble — that is the story.  We can get confused about that part, too.

In real life, when conflict is introduced — divorce, crime, illness, addiction — we can be tempted to believe that the story is over — surely if our dreams are dashed we will die. However, any writer knows that the introduction of conflict is the very beginning of the story.

The Wizard of Oz opens with a tornado that lifts Dorothy’s home off its very foundation, hurls it through the air, and lands it in a far away land with an impact that kills an evil witch. Talk about trouble! The story, however, is not about the tornado or the traumatic journey through the air but about Dorothy’s ability to take step after step down the yellow brick road in a quest to find her way back to the people she loves.

The trouble is not the end of the story; it is the beginning.

Each of us has faced trouble.  My close circle of friends could sit sipping coffee and share tales of betrayal, abuse, illness, financial ruin, scandal, and broken relationships.  In fact, as we get to know one another, it is not typically our successes that we share but the troubles that have played out in our lives. Why? Because these times of trouble shape us. Just like Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson revealed his integrity and his ability to keep his cool when an angry mob confronted him in the middle of the night, our experience with trouble exposes our inner grit — that strength that lies dormant inside of us until a moment of crisis requires it to surface. Dorothy would’ve never known that she was capable of standing up to the Wicked Witch of the West if she hadn’t been hurled through the air and found herself in completely foreign territory.

Trouble reveals what we are made of.

In the smooth sailing sections of my life, I have been tempted to think that I know all there is to know.  I have lived with the mistaken belief that I have it all together — that I can handle life all by myself, thank you very much. I’ve even been prone to judge those whose lives are not sailing smoothly — certainly their trouble is the result of some fault of their own.

However, when crisis arrives in my life — and it surely does — I have to admit that I don’t know everything, that I can’t work things out by myself, and that trouble comes in various ways — with or without my help.  And one thing remains certain: times of trouble shape me.

That’s what conflict does.  It allows the character in the story to be transformed — to be dynamic — to be reshaped.  Dorothy arrives back home with a new gratefulness for the people in her life.  Scout, having watched Atticus navigate the trial of Tom Robinson, gains a new compassion for those who have a different experience than she does.  Me, I learn humility and reliance on God.

Trouble brings me to my knees and forces me to admit that I am poor and needy. From this position on the ground, heaving with sobs, I hear a still small voice: Be still. Know that I am God.  I will never leave you or forsake you. My sobbing softens. I remember that I am but dust. I am not exempt from suffering. No crisis has afflicted me that is not common to man. And certainly this trouble is not the end of my story.

I whisper a thank you. I wipe my tears. I push myself up to standing. I remember the words prayed over me many years ago, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  That is my grit. That is my inner strength that sometimes lies dormant but never fails to surface in times of trial.  The strength of my character is not in my ability to have all the answers but in my realization that I have none of them. That realization keeps my pride at bay and allows me to turn for guidance and strength to the One who knew me before I was born and who has written every page of my story.  He is not surprised by the trouble, but He is using it to re-shape my character.

John 16:33

 In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Narrative threads

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina.  It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray.  I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope.  I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too.  I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot is unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant.  In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time.  I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving.  My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope.  So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

 

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

Feel This

Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them?  What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”

Gasp. Trust my feelings?  That is not one of my internal constructs.

I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them.   I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”  Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.

My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age.  I loved being around her.  She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of  family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left.  Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried.  Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that?  What if I took a picture of your face right now?”  Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.

That didn’t go well.  Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger.  I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed.  And pissed I was.

When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways.  I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried.  Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.

My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down!  So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.

How does a preteen do that?  Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.

I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying).  None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.

All was not terrible, of course.  I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.

High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum.  I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear.  Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out.  Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.

The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional.  I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.

I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface.  I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry.  I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.

That was over thirty years ago.

Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions.  I was certainly going to get it right with my own children.  I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns.  Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me.  How could it not?

So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy.  She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.

These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt.  They don’t go away.  If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable.  And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.

So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep.  I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write.  Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.

Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.

I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.

It might be loud.  It might be messy.  I might attract attention.

I’m ok with that.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.

Ecclesiastes 3:4

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

My Sweet Experience

As a new volunteer for Patient and Family Centered Care at the University of Michigan, I have been asked to share part of my story at Kellogg Eye Center to a group of new Kellogg employees.  What has my patient experience been like?  Since I am more accustomed to writing than to speaking, I thought I’d share what I plan to say here. 

In the summer of 2012, while my family and I were living in St. Louis, MO, I started experiencing joint pain.  I had been, up until that time, a full-time teacher, school administrator, mother of four, and avid runner.  I was a very busy woman in excellent shape, so when I first experienced pain in my elbows, I believed I had an overuse injury.  However, over the next several months, I began experiencing pain in my hands, feet, neck, and shoulders. The moderate sacroiliac pain and issues with my skin that I had dealt with for most of my adult life intensified.  When I began to feel so exhausted at the end of my work day that I couldn’t remember driving myself home, I started the long journey toward a diagnosis — a journey I am still on almost six years later.

You might imagine that this journey has involved visits to my primary care doctor, a rheumatologist, and a dermatologist.  Indeed, it has.  And, since I’m standing in front of you now, you have probably concluded that my journey has also included ophthamologists.  Correct again.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, my doctors were convinced I had psoriatic arthritis.  They had confirmed that I have the genetic marker, HLA-B27, joint pain, and psoriasis.  Although I did not have any inflammatory markers, they agreed that a diagnosis could be given in the absence of such evidence.  I was therefore treated with the standard course of medication: NSAIDs, biologics, and other standard pharmaceuticals — certainly I cannot remember everything I have tried.

In the spring of 2014, I was winding up the academic year, one daughter was graduating from college, and another was graduating from high school.  I was exhausted and in a significant amount of pain.  My rheumatologist decided to treat me with a prednisone taper to give me some relief during this very busy time.

I did experience relief; however, the combination of immunosuppressant drugs and steroids created the perfect environment for ocular herpes.  I woke up on Memorial Day 2014 with excruciating eye pain and extreme sensitivity to light, so I called my St. Louis ophthalmologist, Dr. Todd LaPoint.  He saw me right away –came into the office before a family picnic – and immediately got me started on a course of medication that got the situation under control.  I saw Dr. LaPoint several times over the next few weeks, but then another problem surfaced — I was moving to Ann Arbor at the end of July with a newly diagnosed chronic eye problem.  What would I do for care?

Dr. LaPoint said he would do a little research and get me a referral.  It wasn’t long before he suggested that I make an appointment with Dr. Sugar at Kellogg Eye Center.  He had attended a talk that Dr. Sugar had given and knew he was the best of the best.

I remember quipping, “Dr. Sugar?  I wonder if he is sweet.”

Dr. LaPoint replied, “He is!”

I want to tell you that almost four years later, I have visited Kellogg over twenty times, and I must say that Dr. Sugar is indeed sweet — one of the sweetest — and that Kellogg has been an oasis as I have wandered the desert of my medical journey.

I will certainly not recount twenty office visits for you, but I do have a few highlights I would like to share.

When you saw me walk up to the podium this evening, you might not have expected that I have battled chronic pain and fatigue. In fact, if you ran a battery of tests on me right now, you would find virtually no clinical evidence that I suffer.  Patients like me often meet health care providers who believe that there is nothing wrong with us.  We are hypochondriacs, pill-seekers, and whiners. Even well-intentioned doctors shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t have anything to offer you.” Time after time we walk into doctors’ offices with concerns and questions, and we leave feeling humiliated and defeated.  Because we have experienced this so often, we often walk into doctors’ offices with our defenses up.  We expect to be judged, dismissed, and disappointed.

Since I’ve moved to Ann Arbor, doctors at U of M and St. Joseph’s have removed my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis.  One doctor says I have fibromyalgia; the other says I have degenerative arthritis.  Frustrated with the confusion I experience from this continually changing diagnosis, I discontinued the biologics and anti-inflammatory medications and spent a year trying out homeopathic remedies.  Finally, after years of trial and error, I am currently on a path that seems to be working — physical therapy, chiropractic care, lifestyle changes, and steroid injections.  I’m just a few months into the first significant relief I’ve had since 2012.

In the midst of that long season of struggle, I have had one recurrence of ocular herpes and  two rounds of scleritis.  Both of these illnesses are quite uncomfortable, so one day when I felt a slight change in my left eye, I called Kellogg and arranged to see Dr. Sugar.  When he entered the examination room he said, “How are you doing?” I answered, “I may have jumped the gun, but I just feel like something is wrong with my eye.”  I was already putting up my defenses, expecting Dr. Sugar to be like many other doctors I have seen; I could already imagine him saying  ‘there was nothing wrong with my eye’.  However, he didn’t say that.  Instead, he said, “I always want you to come in, whether we find something or not.  If you think something is wrong, I want to see you.”

It may have been during that same appointment, or it may have been at another one, when he examined my eyes and said, “I don’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean you are not experiencing anything.”  This may seem insignificant to you who practice medicine, but to those of us who suffer with invisible illnesses, finding a doctor who does not dismiss our complaints or deny our reality is rare and life-impacting.

In January of 2017, my husband and I were planning for a trip to Israel.  Because I had recently struggled with a round of scleritis, I was concerned about traveling abroad. What if I had a flare in Israel?  When I mentioned my concern to Dr. Sugar, he pulled out a pad of paper and wrote the name of a colleague– a cornea specialist — who practices in Tel Aviv. He assured me that if I had a problem, I should contact that doctor and he would be able to help me.

One weekend last spring, I woke up on a Saturday morning with pain in my eye.  I immediately called Kellogg.  The on-call doctor opened my file and said, “I see you are a patient of Dr. Sugar.  He likes to be called whenever one of his patients has trouble on the weekend.  Let me try to reach him, and I will call you back later today.”  Not fifteen minutes later my phone rang.  The on-call doctor had already spoken to Dr. Sugar who had given him a message to convey to me including the fact that a prescription was waiting at my pharmacy.

Surely you agree that Dr. LaPoint’s recommendation was spot on.

Let me just take a moment and share one other layer.  I am a life-long educator.  I have had students of all ages from early childhood up through college. One extra joy I experience at Kellogg is the mentorship I witness.  While some patients may be annoyed that a resident or an intern is in the room, I love witnessing the interchange of Dr. Sugar with these future-specialists.  His approach is intentional — I have seen him be encouraging with one resident and direct with another.  I have watched him peer through one side of a dual-microscope while a resident peers through the other.  He listens to the ‘student’ describe what he sees and points out anything he has missed.  It’s quite phenomenal to witness. I have remarked to more than one resident that they are quite privileged to learn from such a distinguished physician.  I do recognize that his standards are high, and that working under his supervision may not be easy, but I believe the experience they are getting just standing in the room with him all day long is among the best training they could receive in the nation.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that along with Dr. Sugar I have received care from others within his office including Dr. Shtein and many fellows.  Each time I have received quality intentional care that leaves me feeling heard and understood. I have not had one bad experience.  This is uncommon.

I have visited many health facilities in the past six years — both in St. Louis and in Ann Arbor.  I have met numerous health care professionals.  Kellogg is at the top of my list of a very few places that I actually look forward to visiting to receive care.  Please continue this tradition of excellence as you join the Kellogg staff.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is within your power to act. –Proverbs 3:27

Carrying Sorrow and Finding Joy

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness says we “can lean into pure joy without denying the struggle in the world”  My husband says, “two realities can coexist.”  In other words, a person can simultaneously be devastated by a school shooting and cheer loudly at a basketball game.  We can hold two things at the same time.

This is hard for me to wrap my mind around.  If I am really hurt, I want to really be sad.  I want to grieve, mourn, and wail.  I want to go all-out Old Testament and rend my garments, put on sackcloth, and smear my face with ashes.  I want to fully commit to my feelings.

I remember a time in junior high when I felt betrayed by a friend.  I ran through the front door of my house, flew up the stairs to my bedroom, flung myself on my bed and wailed — audibly wailed.  My mother came into my room, heard my tale of woe, rubbed my back, and commiserated with me.  She tried to get me to shake it off and laugh a little, I’m sure, but I would have nothing of that. I needed time and space for my grieving.

Of course as is true of most middle school devastations, my grief was short-lived.  In fact, in the words of my great grandmother, “everything looked better in the morning”.  I likely laughed with my friends at the bus stop the next day.

However, life doesn’t stay as simple as middle school.  Some devastations don’t right themselves overnight.  Some griefs have staying power.  I am thinking of the families of this week’s school shooting victims, for example.  They will carry grief with them for the rest of their lives.  I’m thinking of sexual assault survivors, too.  That kind of devastation does not go away when the sun rises.  And, I’m thinking of the kind of aches that many of us carry with us every day — the pain of childhood abuse, the darkness of abject poverty, the burden of overwhelming debt, the brokenness of divorce, and the cumulative scars from years of neglect and unintentional hurts.

What do we do with that kind of grief?  How do we simultaneously hold that kind of pain and still find moments of joy?

Years ago we were very close with a family that had suffered great loss.  The mother and father had had four children — their oldest child was killed in a motorcycle accident in his early adulthood and their youngest child died in an early-morning car accident during her senior year of high school.  We met this family years after these devastating losses, and I can remember listening in stunned shock to the recounting of the stories. I felt the ache of our friends’ loss, yet I also noticed, as we spent more time with them, that the members of this family were often initiators of celebration, of gathering, of laughter.  In fact, the patriarch of the family, the father of the four children, was known for his practical jokes and for his annual elaborate Easter egg hunts. The mother was one of the sweet grannies of the church where we belonged — she was a smiling presence in the kitchen for every function from Vacation Bible School to funeral luncheons to holiday gatherings.   The remaining two sisters (mothers and grandmothers themselves) often hosted huge gatherings at their homes — hayrides, pool parties, picnics, and the like.  The family embraced and even cultivated moments of joy, yet certainly they still carried the sorrow of loss.

Ann Voskamp says “There isn’t one of us not bearing the wounds from our own bloody battles.”  It’s true. I forget that sometimes, especially when I am walking around in figurative sackcloth and ashes.  I look at the people around me and I think, “look at that perfect life.  Certainly they are not suffering.”  But everyone carries pain.  Everyone.  We don’t often see one another’s brokenness because we like to keep it under the thin veneer of Facebook profile pictures, Instagram images, and the other public faces and masks that we wear.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, pain can be paralyzing.  Some losses seem so devastating that we are tempted to lose hope.  We are tempted to stay on our beds wailing at the top of our lungs.  Most of us don’t.  Usually we find the wherewithal to wash our face, comb our hair, and get back to the business of life — work, school, groceries, and laundry.  However, not all of us find a way, like my friends have, to simultaneously hold sorrow and experience joy — the joy of a birthday party, of a new baby, of a basketball win.

Even if we do find a way to be happy for a season, “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” (Voskamp 15).

How indeed?

I’m not entirely sure. I have my own unspoken broken and the only remedy I’ve found is a moment by moment lifting of it.  It’s as though I’m a small child and I’ve just fallen with my most prized treasure in my hand.  It has been marred beyond recognition and I am inconsolable. I cry.  I weep.  I wail.  And then, in exhaustion, I hold it up as high as I can as though to say, “See?  Do you see what happened?  Can you fix it? Can you make it better?”

When I was a little girl, I would hold broken items up to my dad.  He was over six feet tall and very calm.  He didn’t react in anger or disappointment when something was broken.  He quietly took it from my hands and said, “Well, let’s see.”  I knew if it could be fixed, my dad would find a way.  He would bring the situation in close, examine it thoroughly, and determine if indeed the item could be restored.  He might grab a pair of pliers or some crazy glue.  He might take off his glasses to get a better view.  And usually, after a few moments, he would had back my treasure and ask, “how’s that?”

I can still feel wonder at my dad’s ability to make things whole again.

But, as we’ve all learned, some broken things can not be made whole.

And so I’m standing here holding my unspoken broken in my hand.  I’m reaching up as high as I can and I’m saying, “Do you see this? Can you fix it?” And in the moments that I calm my desperate cries, I can almost hear a still small voice:

Behold, I am making all things new. 

I cup my hand around my ear and listen:

Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. 

“But what about right now?” I yell.

Fear not, I am with you. 

Yes. Yes, you are.  You have never left me nor forsaken me.  I’m sitting here trying to be strong and courageous because you are with me wherever I go, but this is a pretty dark and miserable place, you know?

I know.  I see.  I’m here.  

And for that reason, today I will try to cultivate some joy.

Psalm 56:8

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.

Brown, Brené . Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2017.

Voskamp, Ann.  The Broken Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.

How hard can it be? pt. 2

So, it seems like the turning would be the hardest part, doesn’t it?  If you are headed down a road of your own choosing, recognizing that you are going the wrong way and deciding to turn around should be the most difficult step, shouldn’t it?  I have not found that to be so.  I have found two other parts of repentance to be much more difficult — 1)  keeping my eyes from looking back, and 2) continually stepping forward.

Here’s the thing — walking down the road of my own choosing causes a ton of collateral damage.  You would think that once I realize this, I would want to turn quickly toward a path of safety and run just as fast as I can.  Not so.  I am drawn to looking back at all the wreckage.  I get lost in regret and what ifs.  I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see how much I was hurting myself and others?”  My eyes turn back and guess what happens next; my feet follow.  Just that quickly I have lost my way again.

I can lose hours of my time paging through the photo albums of poor choices and missed opportunities.  I mean, I can still lose sleep over the way I treated a childhood friend in 1972.  A terse word with a student can occupy my thoughts all evening.  I can make myself physically sick by rehashing parenting decisions and formulating ways to do things differently.   It’s as though I think I can rewind the movie, cut out the scenes I don’t like, and splice in a version of how I wish it would’ve played out.  But we can’t do that.  What happened happened. I can’t undo what I did, and I can’t undo what others did.  I can’t, but for some reason, my brain still wants to pretend as though I can.

And I think I know why. My mom and I were sitting side by side last week, watching the Olympics and lightly chatting.  I mean, I thought it was light chatting until she said something about getting lost in her regretful thoughts.  She said that she can spiral downward very quickly when she starts thinking about the mistakes she has made in her life, but when she feels herself doing that she says, “Get behind me, Satan!” I about jumped out of my rocking chair — she had hit the nail on the head!  If the enemy can get my eyes turned toward regret, my feet follow.  He just has to grab my chin and turn my gaze toward what I did wrong in 1983 or 1998 or 2004 and pretty soon my whole body has made its way back to a path of my own choosing and I am no longer aware of Jesus walking beside me.  I can’t hear his voice any more.  I don’t care to look into his eyes.  I am a soldier on a mission to make things right, and you’d better get out of my way.

But, guys, I can’t make things right.

It won’t work.

I can’t undo what’s been done.

And I’m not supposed to try.

In these moments, I need the second part of the clause, but, so often, I miss it.

I hear, “repent,” but I don’t seem to hear “believe the gospel.”  Or maybe I hear the words, but I don’t understand the message.  I mean, what is the gospel, after all?  It’s God’s commitment to me — He already knows that I am human, that I am bent on turning, and that I cannot of my own strength follow Him.  He knows that I am going to continually walk down a path of my own choosing, and yet He has promised to be with me wherever I go.  He doesn’t leave me or forsake me.  He has seen all my lousy decisions.  He has watched me ignore the people in front of me.  He has seen me choose myself over others time and time again.  And yet, He loves me.  He has patience with me.  He forgives me.  He continually chooses to walk beside me, to reveal himself to me, and to allow me the time and space to choose over and over again to turn away from my destructive path and toward His Way.

And that is not all.  He is in the business of redemption and restoration.  He takes the wreckage from my past and transforms it into beauty.  It’s beyond my comprehension.  I thought my parents’ divorce was the end of my life, but God used that experience to prepare me to be the wife of a divorced man and the mother of his child.  I don’t hold my husband’s past against him. It’s just part of his story, and now it’s part of mine.

In the mid-80s, I was anorexic.  My whole life revolved around reducing the amount of food I ate and thereby reducing the amount of me.  I was on a path of destruction that many never walk away from.  However, God, in his grace kept walking beside me, he kept talking to me, and before I knew it, I had turned around.  I was worried that I might have done irreparable damage to my body and that I would never have children, but my worries were for nothing, because God is in the business of redemption and restoration.  Not only did he restore my physical and emotional body, he has used my path to minister to others who have similar stories.

Time and time again, I’ve heard stories of people who have witnessed God transforming much greater disasters into stories of restoration. It is what God does.  He creates, he redeems, he restores.

Lately I’ve been spending way too much time in the photo albums of regret.  There is a time and a place to look back and grieve.  Sometimes we need to spend seasons in mourning.  However, when mourning turns into self-blame and punishment, it’s time to close the album for a bit.  It’s time to turn around, walk down the path that has been designed for me, listen to the voice of the One walking beside me, gaze into His eyes, and recognize that He is in the business of redemption and restoration.

God is faithful, and He will do it.

Psalm 30

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.